The Internet in a Turbulent Geography: Fostering Peace and Deepening Enmity in Cyprus


Melih Kirlidog


Ottomans conquered Cyprus from Venetians in 1571 and after an agreement between Ottoman and British empires in 1878 it became a British proctectorate. The British annexed the island in 1914 after the outbreak of WWI. The two main ethnic groups, Greeks and Turks which had about three quarters and one quarter of the population respectively, lived in relative peace in the island for centuries. Even the 1919-1922 Turco-Greek war in the Anatolian peninsula did not have much effect in Cyprus.

The 1950s witnessed an accelerating independence movement in the island. Greek Cypriots demanded union with Greece (Enosis), an act that was strongly rejected by the Turkish Cypriots who were concerned by the possibility of becoming an oppressed minority. The two communities started to get involved in a bitter conflict in the second half of the 1950s. Turkish, Greek and British governments and the representatives of the two communities signed the Zurich and London agreements in 1959 which paved the way to the foundation of Republic of Cyprus in 1960. The president of the new republic would be of Greek, and the vice-president would be of Turkish origin. Seventy percent of the parliament would be allocated to the Greeks, thirty percent to the Turks.

After a relatively calm period, the ethnic strife started again in 1963 which resulted in the hard times for the Turkish community which had to seek refuge in small enclaves. In 1974 the ailing Greek junta organized a coup against President Makarios, who had to flee from the island. The main aim of the coup was Enosis and left-wing Greek Cypriots parties along with the Turkish community were the targets of the coup. Based on the 1959 agreements recognizing Greece, Turkey, and the UK as the three guarantor states, Turkey initially sought to cooperate with the UK to counter the coup. However, satisfied with its two bases, the UK was reluctant to get involved in such an intervention. The Turkish army intervened (this is the Turkish vocabulary; in Greek the act is invasion) the island on 20 July 1974, five days after the coup. Three days later the Greek junta in Athens fell from power. The Cyprus war lasted for about one month with atrocities to the civilian population from both sides and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Cyprus is currently a divided island where Turkish Cypriots live at north and Greek Cypriots live at south. The buffer zone is controlled by UN troops and according to the Greek Cypriots the Northern part of the island is invaded by the Turkish army which has installed an unlawful state (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) there; while the Turkish Cypriots, remembering the bitter events of the 1963-1974, are enjoying peace and security since then. Yet, it must also be noted that the economic hardship at north is leading to increasing dissatisfaction among the Turkish Cypriots. Although not without exceptions, physical contact was extremely difficult among the two communities until 23 April 2003 when the border was opened for daily visits.

The 29 years of separation between 1974 and 2003 meant that about half of the Cyprus population has never seen a person from the “other side” in their lives. Except for a few common villages, there was ultimate separation during the 1970s and 1980s. However, the 1990s witnessed an accelerating rate of contacts between the two communities. Possibly to some extent related with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, political parties, peace activists, professional groups, youth and women organizations sought and realized contacts from the other side.

Although still limited, the increasing pace of contacts found an excellent medium in the 1990s. The Internet and its WWW, mainly used by the younger generation who usually had no previous contact, provided an abstract way of communication that has the potential to be converted to tangible. Several bi-communal mailing lists and web pages were established on both sides to foster communication among the communities. Since the younger generation lacked the knowledge of the other side’s language, mailing lists are exclusively in English (thereby excluding a large number of the population) and web sites are either only in English or trilangual.

The bi-communal electronic mail lists are, by definition, oriented towards establishing a friendship environment and usually the members have a sincere attempt to understand what “the other” has to say. Some of them are rather active and functional in establishing tangible contacts such as “Peace Camps”. The favorite and “secure” topic in such lists is to criticize her own government as an obstacle for peace while criticizing only the other government in a message usually attracts carefully and politely worded controversy. The tone of the controversy increases if coming from the own side. Thus, to be on the safe side, most members prefer to criticize both of the governments even when only one deserves criticism for a particular subject.

Unlike the almost homogeneous electronic mail lists, the WWW reflects the entire range of positions in both communities. The spectrum here is from the bi-communal friendship web sites to the racist and xenophobic ones which usually accuse the former compatriot ones with treason. Another source of treason accusation is the funding of some bi-communal web sites by international organizations such as United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and European Union or the US Embassy in Nicosia.

Although difficult to generalize, a slight pattern seems to emerge in the spectrum of antagonism to amity with “the other” in both communities. This spectrum roughly matches with political spectrum from the left to the right. In other words, individuals and organizations on the left of the political spectrum are usually more inclined to establish tangible and intangible contacts with the other side.